Back to the Future: The Game Review
Posted by Zach Kaplan
Make like a tree and read this review
They say that if you were to travel back a million years and step on a butterfly, you could wipe out an entire species and change the world forever with that one seemingly infinitesimal move. When Marty McFly took a shorter excursion, back three decades to 1955, he almost erased his own existence in a similar fashion. He also discovered some unflattering facts about his parents while he was there – his mom drank and got into cars with boys, and his dad was a peeping tom. That's a big reason as to why we still love Back to the Future: it's not just enthralling science fiction, it's very much about the human experience and finding out who people really are, ourselves included. Not to mention how much fun it is to watch a bully like Biff Tannen run his car into the back of a manure truck. Around a quarter of a century later, we have Back to the Future: The Game, a collection of episodes previously released on other platforms. And it's definitely not a baby's game.
It makes sense that a title celebrating a decades-old movie would fit into a genre that had its heyday in the early 90's – the point-and-click adventure, which Telltale has helped revitalise with series like Tales of Monkey Island and Sam & Max. As Marty, voiced expertly by AJ Locascio, you'll explore, talk to people and collect items to solve puzzles, generally in unusual ways.
It's heavily weighted in story and logic, and it largely delivers on both counts. Series screenwriter Bob Gale serves as a consultant here and it shows – certain minor characters become majorly important, people are fleshed out in interesting ways and you get to play with the effects of time. Best of all, you meet plenty of characters in the McFly, Brown and Tannen family tree, keeping things close to home as the franchise has before. Fans will spot plenty of loving references, like the trusty "what the hell is that?!" distraction technique, and with the delightful Christopher Lloyd reprising the voice of Doc this feels right at home in the Back to the Future universe, continuing and paying homage to its traditions rather than serving as another let-down of a licensed game.
We fondly regard 1993's Day of the Tentacle, a title in the same genre that also dealt with time travel, though in different ways – there you could cut a tree down in the past to prevent a character getting caught in its branches in the future, for example. Here you'll spend the majority of the episodes sticking to about one year each, mainly keeping to two periods overall, but it still works very well. Like in the films, the changes are more sweeping and universe-threatening, which works at a slower pace but with a bigger pay-off. We don't want to spoil anything, but if you like Aldous Huxley, you're going to love the new Hill Valley.
The puzzles are largely satisfying and at times quite difficult, though in the end you won't suffer too many headaches – and if you do, there's a hint system to make sure you don't get stuck. The episodic structure largely precludes sprawling, elaborate dilemmas that might cover the whole of the experience. In the adventure games of yesteryear, you could pick up an item and never use it until much later, or use it multiple times before discarding it. Here things are more compressed and event-centric, which is still a lot of fun but takes the emphasis off exploration – as do the many invisible walls you'll encounter walking around. This isn't about exploring Hill Valley, unfortunately, and a more free sense of play could have done wonders here. Besides those, the game is easy to control, mostly using a pointer system and including three ways to move Marty – the "walk to..." pointer method, the D-Pad or analogue stick and holding down A while aiming the Remote. An on-screen inventory would have been nice, but switching over isn't the worst option.
The cartoony visual style mostly works, but a few dreary colour palettes and some downright ugly, undetailed textures mean that the game isn't exactly beautiful. The voice acting is excellent, and the music even swells cinematically at a few moments. It's something we'd have liked to see more of, but what's there is nice.
From the first screen – a bland, music-free episode selection – it feels like Telltale has put in the bare minimum of work to bring this game to Wii. Once you finish an episode, hitting Continue brings you back to the last auto-save; you have to back up to the main selector to progress. Characters talk while you walk around, often entertainingly so and generally dropping subtle gameplay hints, but you won't hear most of it as any action you perform cuts it off. Usually, the last fragment of sound will disappear from bits of dialogue. Worst of all, load times are frequent and range from irritating to awful. Sometimes just walking around will cause it to stutter. Whenever someone talks or the perspective changes – as it often does when you navigate the town – the game will pause. It's often only for two to five seconds, give or take, but those add up. They don't ruin the experience, but there's no excuse for their regularity. You'll find yourself dreading entering rooms to search around because of the irritating wait you'll have to sit through. It's really a shame that in a game about high-speed time travel you'll do so much waiting around.
Back to the Future: The Game successfully translates what made the original movie great into a fun, challenging, imaginative and funny adventure game that's often a joy to play. Telltale has crafted a loving tribute to the film, then, but this is a loveless port, marred with frequent load times and small presentational glitches. It's still worth playing through and very entertaining, but its flaws keep it from shining as brightly as it should.